Disclaimer: I do not own "Gossip Girl."

Author's Note: Takes off from the end of 3.21, goes into post 3.22. SBN-centered.

It's at some point, between hanging up the phone and waking up the next morning; some instant in the haze of everything, the fall out of their ridiculous attempt at taming a world Serena van der Woodsen inhabits, that it occurs to him— a loose thought, mostly a wisp, a shred of not-memory: he can't remember when.

It's like trying to remember the first time he laughed in public or the first time he looked up at the sun and saw spots; he just can't.

He remembers Blair; remembers it clearly, with a precision that almost scares him: seven years old and sitting next to her during their spelling class, open workbooks and a dark pink ribbon in her hair— a broken pencil tip and the end of class approaching, a command from his father of not one more note detailing an incomplete assignment and the dread of finding no more pencils in his desk and then her sweet smile turning towards him, her whisper, "here, I have extra" and the way her fingers had rolled the pencil towards him. He remembers how nice and pretty and smart she was right then, how he'd loved sitting right next to her, loved being her friend, loved her.

He remembers how he'd liked her before that; he'd liked how she smiled and how she knew things and how she made so much sense. But right then, with that smile and her head leaning close to his and her whispered voice, he'd loved her.

There's no such memory with Serena. No before and after— only love… indistinguishable from like, from friend, from everything—even himself; tangled up in his memories of laughing all the time, of playing tag during recess, of ice cream dripping down the cone onto his fingers; of ruining up the knot of his tie and shoelaces that wouldn't stay tied and hiding under covers to play Pokémon and sneaking cookies from the kitchen— a mess of him and he—

He cannot remember when he started loving Serena van der Wooden.

And it makes him think, vaguely, that maybe him not remembering, not being able to pick a spot, a point, a thread where it began…. separate from him, that, means something.

Maybe not a good something.

He doesn't think it's possible to breathe when there's no air—but that's how it feels when Serena breaks up with him; like he's suffocating but can finally breathe.

The summer stretches out in front him suddenly, startlingly open and disquietingly blank.

It takes him five weeks and three days of playing at Chuck Bass before he realizes it's not for him.

It feels like… work; with expectations and getting to business and paying and honestly, he hates work.

He figures out it's easier to just… smile and let it happen. You go to the right places, smile at the right girl, or girls if he's in the mood for that— and more often than not, it happens.

He visits his father in July. He's been extraordinarily remiss in that activity.

He writes his name into the prison log book with neatly printed letters; holds still as they wave a metal detector around him, follows at a sedate pace as he's lead to the visitor's room.

It's not a long visit; and when his Dad asks him how he's doing with his grandfather, if the man is pressuring you into anything? Nate feels a little bit like he's in the twilight zone; but he shakes his head, keeps his palms flat on the table and tells his father that he's been left to his own devices at Columbia.

Ten minutes later when he leaves, he can't quite say if his father was appreciative or disappointed by that.

When the call comes from Blair, her voice quiet and hard, only the barest hint of uncertainty running through it as she says of her and Serena…and Chuck, "She keeps… asking me about… why." He announces that he was planning to track them down anyway, for Serena's birthday, because they're all friends and because Dan's busy with Georgina and the city's boring without them and Hampton's are full van der Bilt's and what else has he got to do…?

And after a long pause, after Blair says wryly, "Can't manage without us, huh Archibald?" He laughs and starts packing his bag.